“YOG gave me focus” - short track speed skater Desmet reveals Youth Olympic Games’ enduring impact

Stijn Desmet was part of a mixed-gender, mixed-NOC short track speed skating relay team that won gold at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG). Almost four years on from that success, the Belgian explains how the YOG prepared him for a career at the top through innovation, education and an introduction to Olympism and the Olympic values.

For any young sportsperson, heading on to the senior circuit in their sport – or competing at the Olympic Games for the first time – can be a daunting process. Dealing with the pressure, the media, the transport and unusual race times and formats is tough enough – and that’s all before you get to see the world-class opposition you are facing.

So to have been through these processes before, albeit on a smaller scale at the YOG, is vital preparation.

“It was a really nice experience for me, going to the 2016 Lillehammer Youth Olympic Games,” says Stijn Desmet, the Belgian short track speed skater who is now a recognisable name on the senior International Skating Union (ISU) circuit, having recorded multiple top-10 finishes across world and European championships and World Cups.

“They really tried to create the atmosphere of the Olympic Games, and that was great. Fair play to the YOG. Everyone’s supposed to be friends and that’s how it’s meant to be, that is what they encouraged. After my races, I had a few days in the Olympic Village with the Belgium team from the other sports, and that was interesting too.

“I got closer to some of my fellow skaters and also the Belgium Olympic Federation people who I’m still involved with now. I got to meet them then and see how things work up there.”

Coming from a country that doesn’t boast many short track athletes, Desmet benefitted from one of the YOG’s many innovations: he was put in a mixed-gender, mixed-NOC team for the short track relay event with athletes from Norway, the Republic of Korea and France.

The quartet bagged the gold medal, bringing them a taste of Olympic glory. It also influenced their sport, with the ISU eventually introducing a mixed-gender short track relay to their World Cups, World Championships – and the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games.

“I had a nice team, we got along fine, and it was really fun to skate the team event,” Desmet said. “The relay is always kind of chaotic, especially with mixed teams. But it was great to see my team-mate cross the finish line first. You win together, and it’s not that self-centred. It was fast and exciting, and for me that is short track at its best.”

Desmet believes the experience he picked up at the YOG has helped him “stay motivated” as he moves into his senior career. “It helped me focus, it showed me how nice it was to do races like that, and it keeps you happy in the years afterwards,” he said.

“It’s important at that age to learn as much as you can. And there are lots of side events at the YOG too. It can be really interesting and new to learn these things. I’d say to anybody going to the YOG to try to get as much out of it as you can, and to talk to as many people as you can.”

Across the world of winter sport, there are numerous other competitors from previous YOG now at the very top of their sports. While many of Innsbruck 2012’s leading athletes, such as figure skater Adelina Sotnikova (RUS), short track racer Suzanne Schulting (NED) and ski jumpers Sara Takanashi (JPN) and Andreas Wellinger (GER), are now well-established, Lillehammer 2016’s stars are just starting to emerge across a number of disciplines.

Probably Lillehammer 2016’s most celebrated star is Chloe Kim, the now world-famous US snowboarder who went on to win the halfpipe gold medal at PyeongChang 2018 at the age of 17. Kim has since been a huge advocate for the YOG. “I literally had so much fun,” she said in Norway. “I didn’t expect any of this, and I didn’t know it would be that much fun. I met so many people right off the bat and it was awesome.”

But Kim is an outlier: she was famous as an X Games champion before even heading to Lillehammer. More common are those athletes who have used the YOG as a springboard.

Among them are Ema Klinec, the Slovenian ski jumper, who dominated at Lillehammer 2016 (winning women’s and mixed-team gold medals). “I’d like to go on and do what [Sara] Takanashi did,” she said in Norway about the Japanese jumper who has since become one of the sport’s leading lights. Klinec has done just that, progressing to make podiums at senior World Cup events.

Republic of Korea short track speed skater Hwang Dae Heon won the 1,000m at Lillehammer 2016, went on to grab silver in the 500m at PyeongChang 2018, and was world champion in the same event in both 2018 and 2019.

Maria Sotskova, meanwhile, won figure skating silver in Lillehammer; progressed to winning silver at the senior Russian national championships in 2018; and competed at PyeongChang, where she finished eighth. Swiss Alpine skier Melanie Meillard, meanwhile, won gold and silver medals in Norway, and has since started gaining top-10 finishes at senior level.

Across the board, in fact, Youth Olympians have stepped up into senior competition – perhaps with a little more confidence than they would have had without the experience. The graduates of Lausanne 2020 will doubtless benefit in the same way.

By Olympic Information Service (OIS)

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